Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of A Moon for the Misbegotten
Chick Sherman is an aging comedian whose vaudeville-style schtick is no longer popular in post World War II New York City. Chick gets the chance to perform in an avant guarde intellectual drama, but he is afraid to take on a role so different from the clownish comedy that made him a star. (The play is based on the life and work of Bert Lahr, who played the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz and then went on to surprise the world by performing Estragon in Samuel Beckett's groundbreaking drama Waiting for Godot.) At the same time, Chick's adult daughter Katherine comes to live with him for the first time since she was a young child. Although it is obviously not what Chick has in mind, Katherine is hoping this will be her chance to ask her father about his life, her long deceased mother, and her own unusual upbringing. As rehearsals for the new production get underway, his new role begins to affect his life as much as his own experiences inform his creative process.
The first act of Funnyman plays like a lighthearted period comedy. There are plenty of funny one liners, lots of nostalgic banter about 1930s comedy and 1950s New York, and enough authentic dialogue to keep the audience engaged with the characters and their concerns. Alison Roberts' period costume designs are a great asset to the production. The second act takes a darker turndelving into the present day problems and secret pasts of the charactersand it is phenomenal. Bruce Graham gives every character unexpected depth and director Matt Pfeiffer's fluid staging keeps the focus on the talented ensemble.
Carl N. Wallnau's performance as Chick Sherman is superlative, transitioning seamlessly from uncomfortably unfunny schtick to legitimately hilarious dialogue and unflinchingly earnest exposition. Wowza. Kenny Morris is pitch perfect as Milt (Junior) Carp, Chick's long time agent and best friend. Emilie Krause somehow manages to convey a sense of both wisdom and frustration in her role as daughter Katherine. Krause has a convincing chemistry with Brian Cowden (Nathan Wise) who is excellent as her workplace love interest. The role of abrasive and overly intellectual director Matthew Baroni is skillfully handled Charlie DelMarcelle. DelMarcelle's humorous interactions with Keith Conallen (author Victor La Plant) are sharp and unexpected. In Conallen's hands, La Plant successfully embodies a central theme of the play: at once ridiculously over the top and yet so believably human that it is uncanny.
There is still some room for improvement in places. The perpetually rolling set pieces designed by Brian Bembridge have tremendous potential, but there are too many moments where the movement becomes distracting to the actors and the audience. The video clips at the top of each act are clever, but the commercial at the top of the second act is sad-bordering-on-grotesque and fails where the first one so richly succeeds.
In spite of these minor issues this world premiere production of Funnyman is undeniably another winner in the Arden Theatre Company's already impressive season. Come for the laughs and get ready to hold on for the ride. You may never look at a comedian the same way again.
Funnyman runs through March 6, 2016, at the Arden Theatre Company's Arcadia Stage on 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia. For tickets call the box office at 215.922.1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.